You are on page 1of 28

Understanding Gleaning:

Historical and Cultural Contexts of the Shift from Rural to

Urban Models for the Improvement of Food Security

Sandrine Badio

This research was made possible through the cooperation of Village Harvest, LifeCycles, North
Harvest Berkeley, Portland Urban Tree Project, St. Andrews Society, and Thunder Bay Food
Action Network.

Sponsored by Dr. Gary Genosko’s Technoculture Lab and the Food Security Research Network
at Lakehead University, 2009.
Gleaning is an ancient practice rooted in the Bible. In the book of Leviticus, God dictates

to Moses the Laws of the land, one of which pertained to the welfare of the poor: “When you

reap the harvest of your land do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of

your harvest. Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen.

Leave them for the poor and the alien. I am the Lord your God” (Leviticus: 19:22). In some euro-

Christian societies where the line between the church and state was unclear, the ancient act of

gleaning was tolerated by law. With the erosion of feudalism and the emergence of capitalism,

legal reforms began to ban or curtail the act of gleaning to accommodate the new economic order

in Europe (Simonton 1998: 120). Further, Western states gradually implemented welfare systems

that repudiated the laissez-faire attitude towards poverty (Guest 1997). In doing so, the state

shouldered the responsibility for providing for its poor, externalizing independent acts of

philanthropy (Tillotson 2008)

In an effort to reduce fiscal deficits, governments have, over the last few decades, slashed

social programs that protect the welfare of low-income families in Canada. As a result, the

responsibility for providing for the poor is returning to communities and non-profit

organizations. Centuries after the undermining of gleaning, communities across North America

are reviving and modernizing the ancient practice to tackle one dimension of poverty—food

insecurity. This report attempts to provide an overview of gleaning, its various facets, and how it

is being used presently as a tactic to achieve food security. I will look at how gleaning has been

represented in scholarship and the mainstream media. I will analyze the dimensions of gleaning

in relation to food politics, food security, and humanitarianism and then briefly look at select

locations where gleaning is actively underway. I want to offer a comparative analysis of three

distinctive models of gleaning administered by different bodies. Finally, I will close by

summarizing information that I have gathered from individuals who are currently coordinating

similar initiatives. It needs to be kept in mind that, in Canada, food insecurity is a silent problem

that plagues about 9.2% of the population (Office of Nutrition Policy and Promotion. 2007).

Gleaning is a cost-effective tool that may be applied to empower individuals to participate in the

process of securing food for themselves in a dignified and sustainable manner.

Rural and Historical Roots

In modern scholarship, gleaning has been largely overlooked. Existing research tends to

examine the topic from a European framework during the pivotal phase of legislative adaptation

to the economical restructuring that occurred during the 18th century. By oversimplifying the

analysis of the practice of gleaning, important historical information on its role in communal life,

agricultural methods, labour relations within the village, approaches to property, changing

perceptions of charity, definitions of criminality and marginality, and the role of women in rural

economy has been mostly overlooked (Vardi 1993: 1426).

Liana Vardi (1993) illustrates a rather vintage perspective on gleaning in France by looking

practices from the Middle Ages through to the eighteenth century (Vardi 1993). France, unlike

England, protected the customary right of gleaners. This was only achieved, however, through

pervasive state interference. By marginalizing the economic significance of gleaning, a paid

activity that was part of farm labourers’ earnings, was abandoned to the poor under state pressure

(Vardi 1993: 1433). The state’s interference in agricultural arrangements led to the victimization

of the very poor by farmers and farm labourers. To protect the portion of crops that was owed to

the state in the midst of conflict, the “crown intensified rural policing by prompting villages to

hire harvest guards” (Vardi 1993: 1433). Through Biblical appropriation, gleaning in France

was turned into a metaphor for charity. Farmers, however, bore the brunt of the duty of charity

by being forced to abandon crops that played a significant role in their profit margins. In Britain,

by contrast the practice was under threat due to a different set of circumstances.

English scholar Peter King (1991) has attempted to calculate the earning contribution of

gleaning to the household economy of the rural labouring poor in England from 1750-1850. As

he explains, the backbreaking task of gleaning was undertaken by the vast majority of labouring

families in central and eastern England. He estimates that gleaning “contributed up to one-eighth

of annual household earnings and often even more in households headed by widows” (King

1991:474). And in times of scarcity it offered a safety-net for the subsistence of the poor.

King (1992) has also written on the contextual origins of the 1788 English case from which

the ruling emerged that “no person has common law, a right to glean in the harvest field.” The

outcome set a legal precedence as a standard of case law reference (King 1992:1). The 1788

gleaning case may have been a strategic effort to “control the poor’s access to the land in

pursuance of their customary rights and to appropriate the gleanings of the most important local

crops” (King 1992: 29). Gleanings of barley and beans were used for the feeding of farm animals

and therefore were quite important to grazers. But wheat was of less importance to grazers, yet

had great importance to the livelihood of the rural poor. Thus, while the 1788 ruling gave

farmers more control over which stocks were gleaned, gleaners continued to exercise their

traditional right to glean in many places, even after the ruling (King 1992:29). To Lord

Loughborough, Chief Justice of the Court of Commons who presided over the 1788 case, the

customary right of gleaning was in conflict with the nature of private property which entitles one

to exclusive enjoyment of land (King 1992: 28). He also found the practice of gleaning to be

“destructive of the peace and good order of society” ( King 1992: 28). As previously mentioned,

during the late 18th century society capitalism was developing in ways which required the

dissolution of customary rights. These complex economic changes were met with social conflicts

that gave way to the proletarianization of the rural poor. Through the work of King, we

understand that by regulating the rights of indigents, the landless labouring poor were made to be

dependent on wage labour alone.

The question of the legitimacy of gleaning within a Canadian legal framework has not been

adequately addressed. What may be learned from the British and French examples in order to

better comprehend the practice in Canadian context? In Canada no statute permitting gleaning

exists. This may be the case because with the exception of Québec, Canadian law was modeled

after British common law; therefore, British principles undoubtedly influenced the legality of

gleaning in Canada. Further, Canada was erected on the principle of private property. Unlike

Britain, this ex-colony never transitioned from feudalism to capitalism and so customary rights

as known in Britain would have been unknown to Canadian settlers; or, even if some knowledge

of them existed, a context for their application in the new world would be lacking. One may only

surmise that imperial Britain’s beliefs regarding gleaning were absorbed in Canada and no

legislation was passed to protect it.

Visual Representations of Gleaning

In an attempt to understand gleaning, select examples of how it appears in painting and

film will be explored. The place to begin is with two very popular paintings: “The Gleaners” by

Jean Francois Millet and “The Recall of the Gleaners” by Jules Breton. These works capture the

dynamics of the practice in its lived context. The key filmic example is French director Agnès

Varda ‘s widely acclaimed documentary entitled “The Gleaners and I” (2000).

In the arts gleaning has been portrayed on canvas by 19th-century artists like the

aforementioned Millet and Breton, and also Alessondro Battaglia, to name a few. As it is often

said that all art is political, Millet was suspected of canvassing a political statement with his

brushwork in his 1853 piece “The Gleaners.” What does this painting from the realist genre

show us? Three women bent over the earth, raking with their eyes the few meager stalks left

behind by harvesters. Their focused industrious posture prevents them from returning the gaze of

the viewers. In the background, a group of male harvesters are preoccupied loading mountains of

wheat onto carts (Vardi 1993:1424). Next to them is a man (the landowner or possibly his

steward) on horseback overseeing the scene. “The contrast between the wealth and poverty,

power and helplessness, male and female sphere is forcefully rendered” (Vardi 1993: 1424).

Observed by French radicals, the image of the women subsisting off the remnants of the harvest

depicts the brutal existence of peasant life in rural France during the 19th century (Herbert


Another painting that treated rural gleaning was “The Recall of the Gleaners” by Breton

(1859). What distinguishes this painting from others of its time is that Breton precisely captured

the dynamic scene of the gleaners. With one exception, all the women in the picture plane are

hard at work, calculating their every movement, picking up ear stalks. The scene is accentuated

by the presence of children. Even their little hands are put to work. In the distance, the men are

loading the day’s harvest onto a carriage.. The calmness of the scene is disturbed by the presence

of the law—garde de champêtre or village policemen.

Both Millet and Breton resided in France when the country was experiencing a double

crisis: financial and agricultural, on one hand, and political on the other hand. The artists treated

the subject of gleaning at the moment when a new economic order was eroding old feudal

doctrines (Weisberg 1980: 83). In the 1850s gleaning was being questioned as parcels of land

were increasingly privately owned. Landowners saw gleaning as an infringement of their rights

whereas the peasantry felt that outlawing the custom would undermine and deny the “basic

patrimony of the poor” (Weisberg 1980: 83). The rights of gleaners were upheld but with more

restrictions because landowners could still choose to close their fields to them. The garde de

champêtre was left to enforce these restrictions. Millet (with the landowner on the horseback in

the background) and Breton (with the village policemen in the foreground) successfully

underline the presence of authority figures in traditional French life. In such works one can

observe that during the mid 19th century in France, the simple practice of gleaning also embodied

class struggle, division of labour, and power relationships that were under negotiation to

accommodate social change.

Varda’s film “The Gleaners and I” revisits the ancient but still extant practice of

gleaning in France (Callenbach 2003). This whimsical documentary of loosely organized scenes

navigates through many layers of gleaning. For instance, the traditional meaning is defined as the

gathering of leftover crops after the harvest. Next to the definition in the Larousse is a sketch of

Millet’s “The Gleaners.” Within the blink of an eye we are standing before the real portrait in the

Musée d’Orsay in Paris. At times Varda brings her viewers along to glean on fields and on city

streets alongside the displaced and homeless, the unemployed, and marginalized as they visit the

historical and legal dimensions of the practice in contemporary France (Portuges 2001). On one

hand, this documentary is a socioeconomic critique of how the core of society reproduces itself

through irrational waste; all the while this waste could be given a second life by the marginalized

on the periphery of society. On the other hand, this documentary is a collection of scenes knit

thematically together by gleaning, which has evolved from its traditional meaning to encompass

plural modern practices. In Varda’s documentary we quickly understand that gleaning no longer

has a gender, class, or rural specificity. It may be motivated by need for survival or by an

obsessive redeeming of abandoned treasures in rural fields or urban streets (Portuges 2001). As

in the symbolic representation of the law through Breton’s garde de champêtre, Varda reminds

us that authority still looms over the practice and continues to define where, when, and how

gleaning can be done; or not, as many vineyards do not permit it to take place.

In the past few years, mainstream US television shows such as the Oprah Winfrey,

ABC’s 20/20, and CBC news have documented the growing subculture of freeganism. The word

derives from “free” and “vegan.” Although not all freegans are vegans, they are, however,

conscious that advanced post-industrial society is wasteful and make an ethical statement by

gleaning in dumpsters behind supermarkets to obtain free groceries. These largely middle-class

citizens, who avoid queuing at grocery store check-outs like most Americans, find alternative

means to reduce the 96 billion pounds of edible food dumped in landfills per year in the US

(USDA 1997). At times freegans glean more than they can eat either share their findings with

colleagues, donate them to local charitable organizations, or like the activists from “Food Not

Bombs,” create warm meals to be served on street corners to those in need. Although most

freegans glean city dumpsters as a political statement, the parallels survive between this modern

off-shoot of gleaning and the traditional one as captured in Millet or Breton’s depictions. The

bond between people and food remains intact.

In the print press gleaning and poverty tend to be connected. For example, a February

2004 article carried by Reuters titled “In time of crisis, Parisians take to scavenging” points to

the growing number of citizens who have difficulty stretching their income to purchase staple

dietary items. This is an indication that the cost of living is becoming unbearable for many, and

that financial crises has touched the previously untouchable classes. The welfare system does not

fill the gaps and as a result people from diverse socio-economic backgrounds are falling through

the cracks. As a result, some urbanites turn to the streets around the 15th of the month to glean

rubbish in bins. Some store owners are well aware of the social problems and do their best to

help by leaving fragile eggs on top of the rubbish for gleaners. In another article in the Toronto

Star in August of 2007 titled “Reaping a Harvest of Goodwill,” support services and a church

join in solidarity to fight hunger by giving some Toronto residents the opportunity to glean crops

on a farm located in a suburb of Toronto. Unfortunately, organizers cannot meet the full

demands due to lack of financial resources and transportation costs. The plurality of gleaning

today is evident in the examples just discussed: from bohemian freeganism to the needs of the

precariat and efforts at reconnecting gleaning to its rural roots through capital intensive bussing

of self-nominated participants to the farms.

In a similar gleaning project being administered by the Food Action Network and the

Regional Health Unit in Thunder Bay, transportation constraints and a limited number of farmers

participating in the program (no mention of farms beyond Belluz) are slowing the impact that

organizers could make on the local fight against hunger as explained by health nutritionist

Catherine Schwartz Mendez in a September 2008 article printed in the Chronicle Journal.

Gleaning is an alternative measure to appease hunger, but this model is circumscribed by

logistics and distance between poor neighborhoods and social agencies and the farms


Online gleaning represents the interests of many. In one respect, activists who seek to

bring awareness to excessive food waste and its implications on the environment and for the

fight against hunger rely on blogs, websites, and forums to exchange thoughts and tactics; from

another angle, humanitarian efforts led by churches, grassroots organizations, and para-

governmental agencies rely on blogs and websites to educate, collect donations, and mobilize

volunteers to glean fresh fruits from rural farms or in urban backyards. For example, Katy

Kokler, founder of Portland Fruit Tree Project in Portland Oregon, used You Tube as a virtual

school to educate viewers about the benefits of gleaning fruit trees in local backyards. One lesson

is that owners are often overwhelmed by the necessary of managing fruit trees and appreciate

that community members are alleviating their workload. Further, this practice encourages

neighbours to come out of isolation and interact with one another in communal ritual. More

importantly though, Kokler explains that the excess fruits are brought to local food banks where

fresh produce is scarce and demands for it often go unmet.

Food Security

Relative to other countries, Canada is a rich and near the top of the United Nations’

Development Index. Nevertheless, pockets of poverty may be found throughout the country. One

may even argue that in Canada poverty is increasing due to changing economic times, insecure

labor markets, the shifting nature of work, and the transformation of the traditional family

(Rainville & Brink 2001). The Canadian welfare state, which used to provide a greater level of

income support to satisfy a minimum living standard for its citizens, has undergone major

reforms since the 1970s; therefore, more Canadians are now unsheltered from poverty. The

ramifications of these social trends are increasingly apparent in the surging number of food bank

users across the country in response to Canada's growing food insecurity problems.

One devastating effect of poverty is food insecurity. Food insecurity results when “the

availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods or the ability to acquire acceptable foods in

socially acceptable ways is limited or uncertain” (McIntyre et al. 1998:1). In 2004, it was

reported that 1.1 million Canadian households (9.2%) were moderately or severely food

insecure. Urban households (9.6%) had a higher prevalence of food insecurity relative to rural

households (7.3%) (Office of Nutrition Policy and Promotion Health Products and Food Branch

2004: 15). For Aboriginal households, the statistics are more alarming. One out of three (33.3%)

households was food insecure (Ibid). In addition, households where social assistance was the

main source of income experienced food insecurity at the rate of 59.7%, whereas households

supported by wages reported a rate of 7.3% (Ibid: 22). Collectively these numbers indicate that

in Canada, food insecurity is a significant issue that warrants the intervention of both the state

and non-governmental organizations.

To cope with food insecurity, it has been reported that some Canadians resort to

unhealthy and socially marginalizing strategies such as skipping meals or eating less, delaying

paying bills, buying food on credit; many access food banks (Rainville and Brink 2001). In

severe situations, mothers have been known to deprive themselves of nourishment to feed their

children. Despite receiving social assistance, food from food banks, and alternative coping

strategies, low-income families report that “there is not enough room in our budget to buy as

much fresh produce as we would like” (Hoisington et al. 2001: 46). Further, “a prerequisite for

food security in communities includes social and economic conditions that empower community

members to access food by earning enough income to purchase it, by growing or producing it

themselves, or through participation in community food security activities” (Hoisington et al.

2001: 43).

The practice of gleaning is an activity that empowers people to move towards food

security. For example, Tracy, a single women residing in Thunder Bay, explained in a regional

poverty report that gleaning raspberries from bushes along public bike paths has enabled her to

supplement her diet with fresh fruits in the summertime (Brotchie 2007). In Tracy’s case,

summer gleaning in local parks gives her access to a fruit that she cannot afford to purchase in

grocery stores. This example combines urban knowledge and naturalist skills in a way that

empowers the gleaner and overcomes two hurdles – the price of food in grocery chains, and the

prohibitive costs of market fresh produce grown locally for a wealthy clientele.

The centralization of the food system marginalizes anyone who does not possess the

purchasing power to participate in consumer society. Gleaning is an alternative method for the

marginalized to secure access to nutritious food outside consumerism. However, as expressed in

1987 by Tony P. Hall, state representative from Ohio, gleaning is not the sole answer to food

insecurity; rather, it is one part of a solution (Domestic Task Force of the Select Committee on

Hunger House of Representatives 1987: 3). Gleaning can help reduce food insecurity by

allowing those on low and fixed incomes to stretch their food budgets. They could then share the

knowledge informally within their social circles about the various methods for locating fresh

food to be used in daily diets, at least seasonally. These practices can empower individuals to be

active in the process of securing food for themselves in a dignified and sustainable manner, but

there are severe limits on resources as urban gleaning is susceptible to over-harvesting if it is

used as a method to support large numbers of people. The question is whether or not this kind of

practice can be modeled to support more than a few individuals is vitally important for this


Food Politics

Our food system consists of three main actors: producers, distributors, and consumers.

These actors are shaped by factors such as health, environment, culture, markets, ethics,

technology, inspection, and regulation. Each component constitutes an aspect of the politics

surrounding food. There are two main food system models: industrial and alternative.

The dominant industrial model is characterized by high fossil fuel consumption in the

production and transportation phases. Production is dependent on synthetic fertilizers, pesticides,

or genetically modified seeds. Industrial production generally involves large-scale monocrop

farms requiring global sourcing and marketing strategies. Producers are alienated from

consumers by a variety of corporate entities shaping the commodity chain (Jarosz 2007). The

industrial model is criticized as being extremely unsustainable, as it erodes natural resources and

leaves an astronomical carbon footprint. Additionally, it introduces synthetic chemicals into

human bodies that have been linked to food allergies, illnesses and increased resistance to


In contrast to the industrial model, the alternative model tends to stress organic, local, and

environmentally conscious processes at the production level. Transportation is minimized

because food production is in closer proximity to its destination, resulting in a less significant

carbon footprint. Food production is free of the intensive chemical input typically associated

with the industrial model. This model excludes corporate mediations, leaving a larger margin of

profit in the hands of farmers. Direct marketing brings producers and consumers "face to face

developing the bonds of trust and cooperation" (Jarosz 2007 : 233). The majority of alternative

farms are on the smaller side (under 50 acres) and produce an array of fruits and vegetables,

making the process more sustainable. This model has been conceptualized as not necessarily

being profit driven, and less reliant on mechanization, but rather motivated by local support for

farming (Jarosz 2007). As such, typical venues for the sale of organic and local products tend to

be food cooperatives and farmer's markets. Such sites are not neutral. "Critical views of farmers

markets, and community food security movements indicate that they can be exclusionary in

terms of class and race and issues of food security” (qtd. in Jarosz 2007 ). While a number of

alternative food models exist, some stray completely from the globalized industrial model while

others may adhere to its template in certain respects. For example, local food growers may still

exploit migrant farm workers while producing organic food. Therefore, the alternative model

should not be uniformly accepted as a politically progressive model.

On a continuum where industrial and alternative food models exist at opposite poles, one

may place urban gleaning in closer proximity to the alternative model. Urban gleaning leaves a

light footprint on the environment because crops are all local, seasonal, and eliminate the

necessity of transporting crops over long distances. Since the passing of Bill 64 on April 22,

2008, homeowners in Ontario, Canada are forbidden from applying pesticides to lawns and

vegetation. Therefore, local urban fruits are now ‘organic’ by default; even if this falls far below

the standards of true organic certification, it is more than a moral victory. The process of

gleaning is extremely sustainable, as it does not interfere with cyclical and seasonal patterns, but

this also makes it unpredictable on climate change and a host of unnatural events like sprawl and

development. Since urban gleaning is a grassroots initiative, retailers and middlemen tend to be

excluded from the process, therefore leaving the movement in the hands of the people. Lastly,

the process is not driven by the ambition of accumulating capital; rather, people are self- and

collectively motivated to unite and join in solidarity to defeat local food insecurity.


Prior to the confederation of Canada, the Crown recognized its responsibility to

administer a tax-supported system that would provide relief for the impoverished (Guest 1997

:11). Thereafter, in the form of a welfare state, Canada's ability to provide a minimum standard

of living has been limited. As Douglas (1983) argues, if the third sector (not-for-profit) exists, it

is due to the failure of both the government and the market. Thus, from constraints inherent in

both sectors there exists a gap of unfilled needs that non-profit organizations attempt to close.

Non-profit organizations modernize the ancient practice of gleaning to deal with the challenge of

feeding the hungry.

In its very essence gleaning is a humanitarian act. From its Biblical foundation up to the

present, gleaning is ordained to protect the social welfare of the needy, and the spirit of this

practice is preserved and remains unfettered even in hypercapitalistic worlds. Nowadays, two

diverging branches typically administer gleaning: church groups and non-church affiliated

community groups.

The impact that grassroot gleaning initiatives have had in diminishing food insecurity has

yet to be quantified. However, in the US, the effects of this practice warranted attention from the

government, as politicians recognize that gleaning networks are a cost-effective and efficient

tactic in reducing hunger. In 1987, the Domestic Task Force of the Select Committee on Hunger

of the House of Representatives held a hearing in Washington, DC. The committee’s aim was to

better understand how government could facilitate the efforts of established gleaning networks

like the St. Andrew Society while minimizing its presence and outlay of resources. Realizing the

power of the community-based organization in the absence of bureaucratic red tape, the US

Department of Agriculture offered one-time grants to grassroots organizations that help to meet

the food needs of low-income people and increase the self-reliance of communities in providing

for their own food needs. Unlike Canada, the US government encourages corporations and the

public to donate surplus food by offering tax benefits to donors. In Canada, although direct tax

benefits do not exist for food donations, corporations save landfill tipping fees and food disposal

costs by donating (Tarasuk & Eakin 2005: 178). Both the US and Canada have legislation that

diminishes the responsibility of donors for the health and safety of the products they give to food

assistance agencies (not requiring a double test of food safety), therefore encouraging the public

and corporations to be good Samaritans and help those in need, (Tarasuk & Eakin 2005 :178). In

this context, through a number of mechanisms, government facilitates the work of good

Samaritans while remaining largely invisible. These programs thereby enable the third sector to

meet the needs of the people that the market and the government are incapable of fully


Non-profit organizations have become an integral part of a dismantled and/or diminished

welfare state and hold sufficient clout to carve out more room for themselves by, for example,

influencing Congress to pass a bill that enables non-profit organizations to function with more

security. In the realm of hunger, humanitarian deeds such a gleaning projects act as a bridge

between food security and the politics surrounding food production, consumption and

distribution at all scales. Humanitarian food politics empowers the marginalized to cross over

towards food security.

Modeling Gleaning

Stakeholders who would most benefit from gleaning initiatives tend to live in urban

centers. Those who respond to social problems by participating in solutions to them tend to be

sensitive to the social issues at stake. In the case of food insecurity, potential volunteers will

likely be those who reside in the same areas or work near stakeholders and may be, in fact,

stakeholders themselves. Since gleaning is an initiative driven by volunteers, one must consider

the accessibility for gleaners to reach the sites. Thus, organizing an initiative on a farm may

prove to be difficult, as the logistics of transporting gleaners to the site in a large metropolitan

area may be cost prohibitive. For example, a Toronto initiative that brings low-income

individuals to glean on farm in the Markham suburb reported that the project has been forced to

curtail the number of trips it makes due to transportation limitations, even though the demand

and supply still exist (Ogilvie 2007).

The variety of fresh produce available on farms surrounding urban centers tends to

outnumber the variety of fruits available in city backyards. For example, in a small regional

center like Thunder Bay, Belluz Farms is still 20 kilometres away and beyond the reach of public

transportation (other participating farms, while closer as the crow flies, present similar

difficulties), yet its bounty is unsurpassed as it grows lettuces, greens, strawberries, raspberries,

saskatoons, gooseberries, cucumbers, melons, sweet corn, yellow and green beans, peppers,

pumpkins, and squash. Homeowners in Thunder Bay tend to own only plum, pear, apple trees

and berry bushes. Wild foods are abundant during the spring to late summer in the city’s ample

parklands and on the college campuses and in the ravines. Urban wild food gathering includes a

heavily subscribed fishing culture in the streams and on the lakefront, especially during smelt

runs, as well as mushrooming and some wild herb and vegetable gathering. The advent of a Slow

Food convivium in Thunder Bay has gone some way in educating a limited clientele about wild

food gathering within a gastronomic paradigm, but has also made a practice of public cooking

for the poor in city parks as well. The question whether suburban/rural gleaning is better for a

given organization than gleaning urban fruit trees is contingent on both one’s mission and

resources. The latter differ widely. Here are three examples of a national society; a greater

urban; and a regional city centre focus.

Society of St. Andrew

The Society of St. Andrew advertises itself as “a grassroots hunger relief ministry that

relies on volunteers to glean nutritious produce from farmers' fields and orchards after harvest

and deliver it to people in need across the United States.” Churches from all denominations and

traditions as well as non-denominational churches provide the network of volunteers who glean

America’s fields. Pamphlets are distributed to farmers and orchard owners to advise them of the

Society’s services. Interested donors contact their regional office that dispatches a gleaning team

in the vicinity. Volunteers and/or the Society will organize transportation and distribution of

gleaned crops to hunger relief-agencies.


LifeCycles described itself as “a nonprofit organization dedicated to cultivating awareness

and initiating action around food, health, and urban sustainability in the Greater Victoria

community.” In line with their mission, the organization coordinates a fruit tree gleaning project.

To participate in the initiative, fruit tree owners must register their trees with the organization,

which then schedules a team of volunteers to glean the trees. One quarter of the crops go to fruit

tree owners, gleaners, food banks and the organization itself. The quarter which goes to the

organization is then converted into preserves like cider, jams, jellies, juice, etc. These are sold to

the public in an effort to raise funds to sustain the organization. In some cases, a portion of the

gleanings will go to the local businesses that convert the crops into products that meet their


Thunder Bay Food Action Network

The Thunder Bay Food Action Network (FAN) “ is non-profit coalition that works to

improve access to safe, personally acceptable, nutritionally adequate food through a sustainable

local food system.” Clients are referred to the network through agencies that serve low-income

families. FAN organizes transportation for delivering and returning clients to and from local

farms after the harvest. Clients glean a wide variety of fresh produce for their family members

and neighbours. FAN partners with a number of agencies listed on the District Health Unit’s web

site (http//, and a pamphlet on the benefits of gleaning is also available.

Gleaning Survey Results

With the goal of understanding the organizational and operation dimensions of urban fruit

tree gleaning projects, four gleaning initiatives across the United States and Canada were

contacted. The west coast is blessed with a climate that can support a variety of plant species.

Most of the gleaning projects were located there. In addition, gleaning projects have sprouted up

in the midwestern and southern US, and in southern Ontario.

The open-ended survey was conducted by telephone and structured in a manner that

promoted information exchange and fact-finding. In order to simplify the presentation of data,

responses have been summarized.

1. Who are the key actors in the project?

All respondents identified community volunteers as the backbone of their efforts (along with

fruit tree owners). The volunteers are the ones who make the collection and distribution of

thousands of pounds of fresh fruits possible during each harvest. Each project began with

volunteers who took the coordination role upon themselves. After a few years of growth, in some

instances, one or two volunteers could be hired on as part-time or full-time employees.

Nevertheless, all respondents attested that volunteers drove the project.

2. Is there a pattern in the demographics of your volunteers?

Respondents unanimously advised us that no specific pattern existed in the demographics

of their volunteers. All age groups were evenly represented. The nature of the initiative attracts a

variety of volunteers whose interests are diverse but manage to intersect. One respondent

mentioned that the beauty of randomly organizing groups is that they become socializing events

that allow individuals to meet their neighbours for the first time. At times, friendships develop or

recipes are exchanged. One organization that welcomes all volunteers attempts to raise youth

awareness of local poverty issues and coordinates them into gleaning teams to make them into

fun, social and educational events.

3. In the beginning, where did your organization operate?

Some respondents informed me that, at first, when they had very modest resources, they

started their initiative from a private home. All that was required to get the initiative going was a

phone and computer. After gaining some momentum and making more connections in the

community, some organizations were able to obtain the use of community facilities while

remaining independent entities. One extremely well organized and productive organization

operates as a virtual initiative, coordinating everything with the click of a mouse.

4. What percentage/portion of your harvest goes to food assistance programs?

One popular method is to divide the gleanings into thirds. One third of the harvest is

distributed to the homeowner; one third to the volunteers’ and one third to local food banks.

Another model is to allow low-income participants to take as much gleaning home as they wish,

and the balance is then distributed to food banks. Lastly, some models simply ensured that the

entire harvest went directly to low-income families.

5. How did you approach fruit tree owners to ask them to donate their fruit?

Here, respondents advised that with very minimal advertisement in community

newspapers, placing posters targeted towards tree owners on local sounding boards, knocking on

doors, or placing door-handle flyers where fruit trees were visible, they were able to get positive

feedback from homeowners interested in the initiative. In the US, homeowners who donate their

trees are eligible to receive receipts that are tax deductible. Canada does not have such a

provision because it deems the donation to have no market value, unlike donations from farmers

(Canadian Revenue Agency 2009). However, most homeowners participate simply because they

were contributing to a good cause and at the same time solving the problem of having to deal

with copious amounts of often unwanted fruits.

6. What mechanism did your organization use to map fruit trees?

In some cases, once word went around that the organization’s service helped

homeowners with their fruit trees, owners voluntarily telephoned to notify them of the existence

of fruit trees on their property. In other cases, trees were mapped by volunteers who walked

around local neighborhoods. However, it is common courtesy to get consent from the owner to

map the tree and to advise the owner of the difference between consent to map and consent to


7. How does your organization protect itself from liability issues if a gleaner is injured or a
homeowner’s property is damaged?

All respondents said that they insist that volunteers sign some sort of general

waiver/disclaimer to reduce liability in the event of an accident while on duty. However, good

ways to reduce safety hazards are by training every volunteer prior to working for the

organization and always having a gleaner with substantial experience to guide new volunteers. In

order to protect homeowners’ trees or other property from damage, it is highly advisable for any

organization to obtain commercial liability insurance. It not only protects against lawsuits

stemming from property damage, but also protects the individuals working for the organization.

If a new organization seeks to obtain such insurance, it may receive a high premium quote, as it

has no history in the eyes of the insurance company. A method to avoid this is by starting the

initiative under the umbrella of another like-minded non-profit organization.

8. Is the demand for fresh produce sufficient that food banks can re-distribute perishables before
they begin to spoil or must they be preserved and given over an extended period?

To avoid preserving fresh produce, most organizations were affiliated with several food

banks and had become familiar with the traffic patterns of their clientele. This information

enabled them to gauge the supply, which would meet the demand. At first a lot is left to chance,

but after a while one becomes more comfortable with estimating.

9. Does your organization or any other gleaning initiative that you may know about convert
produce into edible foods such as apply pies or jams?

Only one organization identified that they convert some gleaning into jams. The

preserves are sold for fundraising purposes in the community. Another organization was

interested in starting a like-minded pilot project but nothing had been put into place. In general,

although many liked the idea, they feared the complications that may arise in terms of food

safety issues.

The one organization that facilitates preservation seminars had to align its practices to the

standards of the regional health code. In addition, certain individuals in the organization had to

acquire food and safety certification by an external regulatory board. This was very important, as

they had to be knowledgeable of appropriate pH levels and other nuances that go into producing

jam. Although the organization is a charity, it must comply with the same health codes that

commercial preservative companies are expected to meet. To minimize costs, the organization

operates out of a community kitchen in a church. Another organization advised that they juice

their fruits and sell them in order to secure funds to support themselves. This same organization

also distributed some of its fruits to profitable businesses that independently produced food for



The responses in this brief survey begin to identify the many issues related to creating an

urban gleaning initiative. Gleaning is an ancient practice that has moved between profit and

charity. Historically, in France farmers carried the burden duty by being forced to abandon

profitable crops to the poor; whereas in England, although gleaning contributed up to one-eight

of annual household earnings of the labouring poor, a 1788 ruling banned all persons from

harvesting fields. Private property trumped gleaning. Urban gleaning in contemporary focus is a

complex act because it is about survival as much as a kind of alternative politics. Although

gleaning is not the sole answer to food insecurity, it may empower individuals to be active in the

process of securing food for themselves in a dignified and sustainable way, and participate in the

life of their community. Gleaning may operate at a variety of scales, but urban gleaning is local,

organic and extremely sustainable. Gleaning may be modeled in a variety of ways in relation to

local configurations of non-governmental agencies and public level of consciousness about food

security issues. Gleaning is adaptable to organizational scale, mission, and goal.

This research project has isolated several key factors for further study. Decisions taken

about these factors will inform action on how gleaning is modeled in your community.

Since gleaning is volunteer-driven, issues relating to the recruitment and management of

volunteers must be at the forefront of any organization’s efforts. Liability issues must be

addressed before they arise, especially when the health and welfare of volunteers is at stake, not

to mention when private property of donors is in use.

Public education of our political leaders needs to be undertaken since, while farmers are

eligible for tax deductions for participating in gleaning, individuals are not. Fruit philanthropy

might take off if the conditions were ripe! (Brown 2008) In a number of US states, for instance,

non-cash charitable contributions of crops are tax deductible. Currently in Ontario a proposal by

the provincial Association of Foodbanks (Fighting Hunger with Local Food) based on US

models is circulating but does not deal with individuals; rather, the tax credit scheme it is aimed

at producers and processors and is a farm to food bank project. This unnecessarily excludes

urban gleaning.

In urban fruit tree initiatives, tree-mapping services will be vital to any organization’s

long-term success. Digitized maps will help coordinate multi-agency initiatives and share


Gleaning initiatives will best succeed when they are coordinated, like-minded multi-

agency efforts with clear divisions of labour and set project budgets. Sustainable, earmarked

resources for transportation are a vital issue when it comes to urban-rural gleaning outings.

Training and certification by local standards boards in food handling and processing

represent an advanced step in extending any gleaned harvest. These are highly valuable for

maximizing a harvest’s reach. Perhaps of equal importance on the organization level is that

preserved foods may be used generate income that will help to make a gleaning initiative self-

sufficient. This is one of the many important lessons of urban agriculture like Growing Power in

Milwaukee, which is not self-sufficient financially but sells compost in addition to generating

$30USD per square foot in produce sales (Royte 2009). More alternatively however, food

activists can partner with missions, churches or shelters to use their kitchens to small batch

process gleaned foods, if local Food Banks lack production facilities.

Gleaning engages the knowledge of alternative lifestyle activities like wild food

gathering adequate to the growing zone and local flora. Although there is a long tradition in wild

food gathering of protecting special sites, the use of public green spaces for individual and small

group efforts can enhance personal, social and environmental ecologies. Personal empowerment

through naturalist knowledge is gleaning’s gift to the city forager.


Brotchie, Karli (2007) Poverty in Thunder Bay: Rich Conversations with the Poor. A Project of
the Thunder Bay Economic Justice Committee.

Brown, Patricia Leigh (2008) “Food Banks Finding Aid In Bounty of Backyard,” The New York
Times (Sept. 14): 14.

Brown, Sarah E. (2008) ”Hungry for Help,” The Chronicle Journal, September 23rd.

Callenbach, Ernest (2002-03) “Untitled Review,” Film Quarterly. 56(2): 46-49.

Canadian Revenue Agency (2009)

Office of Nutrition Policy and Promotion (2007) Canadian Community Health Survey. Cycle 2.2
Nutrition (2004): Income-related household security in Canada. Ottawa: Office of Nutrition
Policy and Promotion, Health Canada.

Domestic Task Force of the Select Committee on Hunger of the House of Representatives (1987)
Role of Gleaning in Efforts to Alleviate Hunger. Washington, DC. No. 100-14.

Douglas, J. (1983) Why Charity? The case for the third sector, London: Sage.

Herbert, Robert, L. (1966) “Millet Reconsidered,” Art Institute of Chicago Museum Studies 1:

Hoisington, Anne., Sue N. Butkus, Steven Garrett, Kathy Beerman (2001) “Field Gleaning as a
Tool for Addressing Food Security at the Local Level: Case Study,” Journal of Nutrition
Education and Behaviour 33(1): 43-48.

Guest, Dennis (1997) The Emergence of Social Security in Canada, Vancouver: UBC Press.

Jarosz, Lucy (2008) “The City in the Country: Growing Alternative Food Networks in
Metropolitan Areas,” Journal of Rural Studies 24(3): 231-44.

Kantor, Linda S., Kathryn Lipton, Alden Manchester and Victor Oliveira (1997) “Estimating and
Addressing America’s Food Losses,” Food Review. United States Department of Agriculture.

King, Peter (1992) “Legal Change, Customary Right, and Social Conflict in Late 18th century
England: The Origins of the Great Gleaning Case of 1788,” Law and History Review 10(1): 1-

--- (1991) “Customary Rights and Women’s Earnings: The Importance of Gleaning to the Rural
Labouring Poor,” The Economic History Review 44(3): 461-76.

McIntyre, Lynn, Sarah Conor, and James Warren (1998) A Glimpse of Child Hunger in Canada,
Ottawa: Applied Research Branch Strategic Policy, Human Resources Development Canada.

Ogilivie, Megan (2007) “Reaping a harvest of goodwill: Whittamore’s Farm invites inner-city to
glean its fields and take home the free pickings,” The Toronto Star (August 8th).

Ontario Association of Food Banks (2009) Fighting Hunger with Local Food.

Pineau, Elizabeth (2009) “ In Times of Crisis Parisians Take to Scavenging,” Reuters

(Feburary 4th):

Portugues, Catherine (2001) “Untitled Review,” The American Historical Review 106 (1):305-6.

Rainville, Bruno and Satya Brink (2001) Food Insecurity in Canada 1998-1999, Ottawa:
Applied Research Branch Strategic Policy, Human Resources Development Canada.

Royte, Elizabeth (2009) “Street Farmer,” The New York Times Magazine (July 5): 22-5.

Simonton, Deborah (1998) A History of European Women’s Work: 1700 to Present. New York:

Terasuk, Valerie and Joan M. Eakin (2005) “ Food Assistance Through “Surplus: Insights from
an ethnographic study of food bank work,” Agriculture and Human Values 22: 177-86.

Thunder Bay District Health Unit (2009) “Gleaning: Neighbours picking together.”

Tillotson, Shirley Maye (2008) Contributing citizens: modern charitable fundraising and the
making of the welfare state 1920-66, Vancouver: UBC Press.

Varda, Agnes (2000) The Gleaners and I [Les Glaneurs et la Glaneuse], Zeitgeist Films.

Vardi, Liana (1993) “Construing the Harvest, Farmers, and Officials in Early Modern France,”
The American History Review 98(5): 1424-47.

Weisberg, Garbriel (1980) The Realist Tradition, French Painting and Drawing 1830-1900.
Cleveland: The Cleveland Museum of Art in cooperation with Indiana University Press.